Philly Sports Live

Maori All Blacks: Rugby Warriors

Irrespective of where they are formed, when a sport finds its way from one part of the world to another, it manages to adapt itself to its new environment.  From there, its own traditions and stories are born, and it weaves its way into the culture and takes on a new, distinct form, one that continues to evolve.

When the Maori All Blacks come to PPL Park for their match against the USA Eagles on Saturday night, they will be bringing with them 125 years of rugby tradition.  They will also bring several centuries of indigenous history with them, one that spans beyond the pitch.

Migrating from different parts of Polynesia, the people that became known as the Maori settled in New Zealand between the 13th and 15th centuries, and for about two hundred years, were the primary inhabitants of the land they would come to call Aotearoa.  They would establish their own culture, one that fused essences of their original homeland with that of their new one.   Their culture was not that much different from that of the American Indians at the time; they considered themselves tangata whenua, “people of the land” in their own language.

They also established a warrior culture, not unlike those that existed and still exist in other Polynesian islands.  The countryside was dotted with numerous pa, forts built into giant hills.  These warriors would perform war dances, haka, designed to honor their own history as tribes and as people, as well as intimidate their enemies.  They would garnish themselves with facial tattoos, a sign of respect, of manhood, and of accomplishment. Part of that respect, or mana, was earned by eating their defeated enemies.

All in all, the Maori thrived in isolation.  That is, until the late 18th century, when Western explorers and settlers changed the cultural landscape of New Zealand forever.  In the beginning, this alien settlement was tame.  Abel Tasman and Captain James Cook had come and gone, and a number of foreign missionaries and escaped convicts from Australia made their way over and became known to the natives as Pakeha Maori, or converted Maori.  The arrival of American and British whalers and traders offered new items the once isolated people.  The acquisition of muskets led to a half-decade of violent bloodshed between tribes.

It was against this background, and pressure from French Missionaries spreading Anti-British sentiment, that Great Britain intervened.  In 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed, granting British rights and land rights to the Maori people.  Most of the tribes on the North Island of the country signed.  Some refused, not wanting to give up sovereignty to a colonial faction.  In the immediate years after the treaty, relations between the two cultures was peaceful.  The Maori set up businesses amongst that of the white Westerners, while many of the newcomers took to learning the ways of the natives in an effort of understanding.  Early governor George Grey was one of the foremost British students of Maori culture, going so far as to learn the language and familiarize himself with the mythology and history of the people.

But the peace would not last. Battles over land between the Maori and the British would begin in the 1860s, and would end with most of the land in the hands of European settlers, and the Maori population was now just 10% of the whole country.  Despite the battles for land, and their relegation from the cities to more rural areas, they were still integral members of New Zealand Society.  They were granted four seats in parliament in 1867, and Maori men were given the right to vote along with them.

The 1888-89 New Zealand Natives team, the first to tour Australia and Great Britain. (photo: The Province)

The 1888-89 New Zealand Natives team, the first to tour Australia and Great Britain. (photo: The Province)

Right around this time, in 1870, the game of rugby was introduced to New Zealand by Charles Monro, whose father immigrated from Scotland and later became speaker of the New Zealand House of Representatives.  Monro had picked up the game while at Christ’s College in London, and was intent on spreading the game in his homeland.  By the end of the decade, provincial teams had formed and some of them were challenging clubs in Australia in some of the first international matches.  The country’s first national team visited New South Wales, Australia in 1884, and won all eight of their matches against local sides.

For all the fighting that was going on between the cultures, on the rugby field, they were all one team.  White players played aside Maori.  In 1888, however, the idea for an all- or part-Maori touring side came about from the mind of Joseph Warbrick, a Maori who played on that first national team four years before.  That first team, which toured Australia and then England, was made up of both full blooded and part-Maori players; the latter fact having turned off many potential full-blooded Maori from participating.  After early matches against local sides yielded losses, five non-Maori players were added to the team.

And so the club billed as the “New Zealand Natives” headed to Great Britain.  Their first international match was a 14-0 win over Ireland in Dublin on December 1, 1888.  Edward McCauslin, a non-Maori — born in Australia to Irish parents who emigrated to New Zealand when he as 15 — had a try and kicked four goals.  Three weeks later, they fell 5-0 to Wales in Swansea.  In February, they lost to England in a very contentious 7-0 result.  In all, they played 74 matches on the British Isles against sides ranging from local sides to the national teams, and went 49-20-5.

The Natives wore all black uniforms, and before their matches, would perform a haka called Ake Ake Kia Kaha.  The tour would be the inspiration for the New Zealand Rugby Union, which would form in 1892, and the national team that would come from it would take both on as tradition.

Today, the New Zealand national team, known as the All Blacks, still wear those famous monochrome kits, and the players — white and Maori alike — perform the haka.

(Above: The Maori All Blacks perform the haka before their match against the Leicester Tigers on November 13th, 2012.  Video courtesy Leicester Tigers)

The All-Maori concept was not forgotten, and in 1910 the New Zealand Maori was named as an official part of the NZRU.  For many years, players who could claim part Maori heritage were considered eligible for the team.  In recent years, however, the guidelines have become stricter.  Today, players are subject to strict genealogy checks in order to even be considered for the team.

One of rugby’s fascinating aspects is the existence of touring clubs that go beyond nationality.  Clubs such as the British and Irish Lions, the Barbarians, and the Maori All Blacks, select not only the best players to represent them, but also the best men.  Indeed, to represent the Maori is considered a great honor not only within the sport, but culturally as well.  Some of the game’s greatest players would pull on the black-and-white kits, including Tane Norton, who would later serve as the NZRU’s president once his playing days were over.

Around World War II, the Maori population, which had been in decline since the beginning of the century, began to grow again.  Today, about 15% of the country’s 4.5 millian people are Maori, compared to 64% white/European.  The Maori, though still fighting a number of cultural battles, are still a prominent part of New Zealand life and culture.

And they remain a vital part of the sporting culture as well.  The Maori have fully embraced just about all of the country’s sporting culture, and have representative teams in rugby league, as well as cricket.  But rugby union is king in New Zealand, and New Zealand are rulers of the rugby world.  They are the reigning world champions in men’s and women’s competitions, both at the 15-a-side level and in the emerging 7’s code.  Today’s Maori stars, including the legendary Jonah Lomu and longtime veteran Keven Mealamu, play just as big of a role in growing the game as their white counterparts, and they do so as one nation.

But they, themselves, are unique.  And so are their contributions to the game.

Feature Photo: Harley Peters